High School

“Mr. High School Sports” – NA Still Setting The (Black And) Gold Standard

By Matt Popchock
North Allegheny celebrates

The North Allegheny Tigers celebrate an unprecedented third straight WPIAL Class AAAA championship Friday. (File photo: Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — You can’t buy enough vowels to put into succinct words what Art Walker’s team has achieved.

Sure, you can point to the wheel of fortune that turned in favor of the Tigers (13-0), at least on this particular Friday. A botched fourth-down play preserved their lead, and a very untimely encroachment call cemented it before Woodland Hills (10-3) could get one last chance to drive for a potential tying score.

At the end of the day, the celebration that followed a 21-14 win at Heinz Field, giving them an unprecedented third straight WPIAL Class AAAA title, was all about what some lightheartedly refer to as “The University of” North Allegheny.

In any context, the program has been so well run these past three years you’d think the rest of the Northern Eight Conference and playoff field were facing a good college team.

But it wasn’t just all about The U.

It was also about the “O,” which is what the scoreboard read after the teams produced the eventual final score before the first half had even expired.

“Our job is to stop the run first, and we made it personal,” said Woodland Hills senior linebacker Alex Beasley, who finished with nine solo tackles, a fumble recovery, and one of six sacks by the Wolverines. “We studied hard on their keys, and reading their guards. They ended up getting a few big plays on us, which won them the game.”

North Allegheny, known for its ability to break opponents with its breakthrough ground attack, only managed 79 yards rushing, and featured back Alex DeCiantis was held to 59 on 17 carries, which allowed Woodland Hills to stay within range. However, the least scored-upon defense in the classification would let them get no closer.

It was also about the “I.” There certainly isn’t one in this team, but there is in the name Mack Leftwich. N.A.’s quarterback made those big plays, such as hitting fellow senior Zach Lyon between the “I’s” for an impressive 44-yard strike that put the Tigers into the early lead.

“He’s probably the best quarterback we’ve faced,” said Woodland Hills head coach George Novak. “He’s dangerous in the pocket, running it or passing it.”

Leftwich finished 13-of-22 for 219 yards and three TD’s in the air.

It was also about the “E”–for “excellence”–of Art Walker’s offensive and defensive fronts, which have been as much a key to his program’s reign as any.

“They understand what’s at stake, and they knew they couldn’t take anything for granted. They knew they had to give everything they had in order to get another game. They didn’t want it to end tonight,” Walker said of a group featuring tight end/defensive lineman Lyon, hard-hitting Jeremy Gonzales, and Michigan recruit Pat Kugler. “If those guys aren’t getting it done for us, then we can’t do all the things we do.”

“Their defensive front was very aggressive, and tough to block,” Lyon said. “I knew I had to just do my job, get low, and get my assignments done. I knew [my teammates] would hit the holes if they were there.”

It was also about the “A”–as in the “amazing” run that “NA” didn’t want to end. Since the end of the 2010 regular season, the Tigers have racked up 30 consecutive wins against WPIAL teams.

In Quad-A, given history, it may be a while before we see anything like it again.

“I think it’s a collective thing with the seniors we have–we’re a very senior-laden team–and they experience they’ve gained since tenth grade. They understand the work ethic, the sacrifice, the commitment that’s involved,” Walker said. “That group has done so much for me over the past three years, and, for me, it’s remarkable to see. So it starts with the players, and I’m privileged to be the head of a staff of coaches that could probably all be head coaches.”

“We’ve played some pretty tough teams in Upper St. Clair and Gateway to get here. But I told my kids, before the game, man for man, these guys are going to be as tough as you’re going to face, and they’ve got them at every position,” Novak agreed.

Then again, with that coaching stability, and a voluminous roster still with plenty of underclassmen waiting to be well groomed, plus the recent consolidation of Quad-A, why not take a shot at Clairton’s legendary streak?

“Only 31 and counting…” Walker said with a laugh.

Well, not exactly, but we’ll stop there.

Bottom line: the Tigers have earned their accolades. Since Week One, they’ve beaten six of the top eight finishers in WPIAL Class AAAA, including a quality non-conference road decision at Gateway, and not including a playoff victory over conference rival Seneca Valley.

Now their quest for a second PIAA championship in three years begins this approaching Friday against District 10 champ and former annual foe Erie McDowell (7-5).

It’s all about The U…and now that their most difficult test has been passed, “U” had better watch out for these Tigers.

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)

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